Progressive Leadership in Australia? Shouldn’t that be – Progressive Leadership in Australia! Sadly, a cursory assessment of our current political landscape leads to the conclusion that the question seems considerably more apt than the exclamation.
John Howard’s considerable influence over political debate in Australia for over a decade was neither benign nor neutral; his influence was malicious and pervasive. He delegitimised asking difficult questions or advocating certain views with his war on political correctness. His approach to higher education made clear that universities were to be valued for their functional use only, that there was no value in thinking and learning on its own. WorkChoices was more than merely an industrial issue. One of the most offensive elements of the legislation was the way individual contracts silenced and atomised workers. Naturally pay was cut and conditions lost in these circumstances, but probably worse was the fact people knew they were losing out and yet, because of the anti-union agenda, had no platform on which to protest this. This was Howard’s Australia.
This curt overview of a recent past we all too clearly remember is included to give context to the excitement and enthusiasm with which many Australians embraced the Your Rights @ Work campaign and Kevin07. Suddenly it seemed like an answer to our question – Progressive Leadership in Australia? – was just around the corner; someone had been elected who would speak for us. Without reliving the gory details of this well known story, a new Prime Minister and another election later we’re still waiting.
One of the reasons for this is that (re)building progressive leadership in Australia after Howard was a bigger task than any of us had imagined. Insidiously and in part imperceptibly the rules and norms of political debate in Australia had shifted. The shared values and common sense compassion of the community had shifted; the ground once occupied by progressive leaders had crumbled. They found themselves desperately clinging to rock ledges on their Right.
Despite these challenges, I refuse to say that rebuilding progressive political leadership in Australia requires us to “start a new conversation” or “have real discussion”. Moving our mouths and having words come out is certainly important, but it is not enough. There is urgency here. We need action.
We might start this action with two acts – listening and giving responsibility. One of these is applicable to our political leaders and the other applies to our Labor campaigns.
We need our political leaders to listen to us, not to talk to each other or in closed circles about decisions. Leaders do need to lead from the front, to make decisions, but they cannot leave their base behind; otherwise they become bubble-gum leaders who chew people up and spit them out when their use is over. Listening must not be defensive or passive; it must be actively listening to your base.
We need leaders who are prepared to give responsibility to others, to empower and train new leaders. This is particularly a problem in progressive Labor campaigning. Our relationships are almost always strictly hierarchical; they need to be more relational. This does not mean there is not a clear process for making decisions in campaigns, but it does mean individuals do not rely on their position alone for the authority to make decisions. They trust and train those around them and give responsibility to those who earn it.
These sound like simple acts, but actually they are courageous. To actively listen without pre-judgement is to admit you do not have all the answers. To give responsibility when the stakes are high – winning or losing an election – is to invest considerably in others. This courage is necessary to rebuild progressive leadership in this country. This isn’t about being proud or arrogant, this isn’t a courageous machismo. This isn’t about not being afraid. As Nelson Mandela said “courage is not the absence of fear, it is inspiring others to move beyond it”. This is what building progressive leadership is about, it is the courage and strength to bring people together despite fear, despite doubt, despite some difference of opinion or ways of doing things, because otherwise all we will ever have is the question and never the collective voices to make sure our answer is exclaimed the loudest.